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Mariam was 13 years old when she escaped with her family from fighting near their hometown Al-Shalilah, a village outside the port city of Haradh in northern Hajjah governorate. After first finding refuge in the Al-Shia’ab camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), less than two years later, at the age of 14, she was married off to a fellow villager from Al-Shalilah. However, she would soon be on the run again as fighting in Hajjah created new waves of IDPs, including many who had already been uprooted.

The family then took shelter in the Bani Hassan camp in Abs district, at the time the largest IDP settlement in Hajjah, with around 5,000 families overseen by a consortium of international aid agencies and their local partners. When the internationally recognized government launched an attack to retake the district in 2019, they fled for a third time, to Al-Hayjah, 15 km to the southeast. Now more than seven years after she first left her home, Mariam is now a 20-year-old mother of three.

Mariam and her family on June 20, 2022, outside their makeshift home in Al-Hayjah IDP settlement near Abs city in Hajjah governorate // Sana’a Center photo by Ghader Murad.

Life in Al-Hayjah

Hosting hundreds of displaced families, Al-Hayjah is situated on privately owned land in the foothills east of Abs city. “We decided to come to this place since it was the nearest to us,” said Yaqoub, Mariam’s 28-year-old husband. “We didn’t take much of our stuff, just a few bags with clothes.”

For the last three years, the couple has been living in two small, shabby shacks with their three children and Yaqoub’s elderly mother. Constructed of tree branches with plastic sheeting placed on top, the two structures face each other, but are so frail they can hardly keep out the sun, let alone the pouring rain. Outside there is a clay oven used for cooking and a couple of traditional ga’das – rectangular beds for sleeping, half a meter wide and two meters long.

“Life was much better and much easier back home, just tending to sheep and collecting firewood,” Mariam said, holding a six-month-old baby in her arms – her third child born in a camp. “The situation there became unsafe with the bombing and shelling every day near the borders, and everyone had to escape for their safety.”

With tens of thousands of children across Yemen born as displaced persons, children account for half of the 4 million IDPs in the country – the fourth largest IDP population in the world as of 2021. A survey published in December 2021 showed that 649,387 children under five lived at IDP sites across 14 Yemeni governorates, including 194,496 aged less than one-year-old. More than 73,000 pregnant women are IDPs. Another recent study of three governorates by the UN Population Fund, UN Children’s Fund, Women’s Refugee Commission and John Hopkins University found that child marriage is more prevalent among displaced girls: one in five aged 10 to 19 in the surveyed areas in Sana’a, Ibb and Aden were currently married, compared with one in eight in nearby host communities.

The Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) cluster, managed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says 1.6 million people among the IDPs have found refuge in 2,358 sites that it describes as “spontaneous and unplanned.” Most IDP sites in Yemen are established “informally and with little intervention from the humanitarian community,” according to the CCCM cluster’s 2021 strategy. The right of IDPs to remain in their camps has become increasingly tenuous, as some 80 percent of the sites had no tenancy agreement as of early 2022. During 2021, 7,500 displaced families across 70 IDP sites were under threat of eviction.

In Hajjah, a total of 487 IDP sites have been established since 2015, hosting 435,007 people who escaped hostilities, particularly near the Saudi border. Hajjah has had the second largest population of IDPs in the country after Marib. According to the CCCM, 97 percent of 195 sites surveyed in Hajjah were spontaneous settlements, and 92 percent sit on private land. Since 2015, the CCCM has followed a policy of not providing tents to IDPs, in order to prevent such sites becoming permanent, and in 2018 it made the additional recommendation that humanitarian groups establish new camps only as a last resort.

Al-Hayjah is particularly ill-equipped. There are none of the tents or concrete structures found in other camps. Almost all residents are housed in poorly-constructed shacks. In 2019, families were provided with an emergency shelter kit consisting of sheeting, planks of wood and other materials – most of which have now worn out. A UNHCR report noted IDP sites in Abs district suffer from poor shelter facilities, a lack of water and sanitation and a shortage of food, all of which increases the vulnerability of their residents.

Sheikh Abdullah Saeed, a local tribal leader, made available a large area of his land for the IDP settlement at Al-Hayjah. Supervising the site and coordinating humanitarian activities there, Saeed says it is now home to around 800 displaced families. But he pointed to some basic requirements for accommodating the displaced that are lacking at Al-Hayjah. “There is only a small health unit that can barely provide primary health care, and water is still being provided by trucking it in,” he said.

Severe Lack of Internal Economy Among IDPs

There is little internal economy to speak of inside the camps. At some sites, NGOs provide a measure of financial assistance, while some men are able to find work as day laborers in their vicinity. Based on the UNHCR’s assessments, some 92 percent of displaced families in Yemen suffer from a lack of work, with 64 percent having no source of income at all and others living on less than 25,000 Yemeni rials (US$40) a month. According to the refugee agency, this means that two out of three displaced families have only one or two meals a day and that children are deprived of education and adequate healthcare. Some families resort to begging, or selling whatever possessions they have, while others marry off their daughters at a young age in order to ease financial pressures.

According to UNOCHA, which coordinates emergency responses to global humanitarian crises, women and girls are in particular need of protection. “Displaced women and girls tend to suffer most from lack of privacy, threats to safety and limited access to basic services, making them even more vulnerable to violence and abuse,” the agency reported in November 2021. Around 30 percent of displaced households are headed by women, and their financial burden is increasing as inflation hits an already deteriorating economy.

A report published in July 2022 by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), which oversees UN responses to humanitarian challenges across different organizations, cited protection as a critical problem facing Yemen’s IDP camps, as it is one of the least funded humanitarian activities in the country. The report said that displaced children are at particular risk of abuse and exploitation in IDP hosting sites, more than half of which contain some households headed by minors (under 18 years old). The report noted that less than half of the sites receive any humanitarian assistance at all, and of those, less than half the residents receive aid.

Mariam’s family kept a large number of sheep and goats in their hometown as their main source of income. They managed to take the majority to the first IDP site they stayed in but had to sell most of them to make ends meet. Now they have only a handful of sheep left, which her husband and his mother tend to, and rely on the food assistance they receive from an aid agency each month.

Protracted Displacement vs. Durable Solutions

As the conflict has become protracted, displacement in turn has become more entrenched. Returning IDPs to their homes has not been a feasible solution due to risks of being exposed to further displacement if fighting breaks out again.

According to the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, a durable solution would mean that “IDPs no longer have any specific assistance and protection needs that are linked to their displacement, and can enjoy their human rights without discrimination on account of their displacement, and that it can be achieved through return, local integration and resettlement.” But long-term resolution of displacement on these terms remains a “distant prospect” in the view of many in the humanitarian and development sector, according to a Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) report on displaced households. “Achieving durable solutions is complicated by continuous fighting and ever-shifting conflict frontlines, coupled with severe economic decline and limited livelihoods opportunities,” the NRC said, adding that “the focus of the humanitarian interventions remains emergency in nature due to the active conflict.” The NRC says over one million IDPs returned to their homes during 2019, but they did so in the absence of humanitarian conditions that would ensure their return was permanent. The CCCM cluster in Yemen also believes that durable solutions will be difficult without “the basic structures and circumstances that would allow safe return, resettlement and reintegration.”

So while UN-affiliated and other agencies have been discouraging the displaced from taking up permanent residence in camps, they are unable to offer a secure alternative or the ability for them to safely return home. As a result, for more than seven years, a generation of displaced children have lived in temporary, and often unplanned, IDP settlements in Hajjah and across Yemen. Their families hope to return one day to their local communities, without fear of being uprooted from their homes again.

Renewed fighting in the Haradh area this year means that Mariam’s family, like tens of thousands of others, will not be able to go home soon. “None of my family members or other local people have so far been able to return to our village,” she said. “We don’t know for how long we will be living as a displaced family.”